Friday, February 23, 2018

The Power of Touch ("The Power of..." Part III)

         There is a Thompson Twin's song called Lay Your Hands On Me.  Some of the lyrics that I find especially meaningful:
 This old life seemed much too long
With little point in going on
I couldn't think of what to say
Words just vanished in the haze
I was feeling cold and tired
Yeah kinda sad and uninspired
But when it almost seemed too much
I see your face
And sense the grace
And feel the magic in your touch...

 Back and forth across the sea
I have chased so many dreams
But I have never felt the grace
That I have felt in your embrace
Oh I was tired and I was cold
Yeah with a hunger in my soul
When it almost seemed too much
I see your face
And sense the grace
And feel the magic in your touch

        I understand that these words written by pop artists are probably intended to refer to a more sexualized touch that how they strike me, but they can be read either way, so I'm asking you readers, for the moment, to put aside that other understanding of these words and to stay with me in a very basic look at the power of touch to heal, to transform and to comfort.
        In many of our faith traditions there are rituals of healing, almost all of which involve some kind of touch. While many Western cultures have been mostly uncomfortable with touch (and really only seem to talk about or celebrate it in a sexualized context), other cultures still celebrate and emphasize the power of healing touch.  We are getting better: we now recognize the healing in massage and while acupressure has not received the same acceptance yet, it is moving in that direction.  But touch is something we still don't discuss very openly.

       In the CE Curriculum, A Sensual Faith by Ian Price (British Columbia, Canada: MediaCom Education, Inc, 2000), Dr. Tony Nancarrow shared this story:
      “It was Friday, the morning I was due to visit the geriatric ward of a large regional hospital where I was a minister.  I was anxious to get it over with as quickly as possible.  I found it difficult to talk with these elderly people.  There was a nurses’ aid at the hospital – a very practical person.  She was middle-aged, overworked, a gruff no-nonsense type of person.  Yet as she plodded around that ward on her tired feet, trembling arms were held out to her, faces turned towards her warm homely face, quavering voices called her by name.  And she, knowing the heart hunger, the loneliness of the old, was lavish with her touch.  She patted a cheek, pushed hair from a forehead, or sensing a really special need gave a hug.  As I watched her, I thought, if it works for her, perhaps it will work for me.  The response shook me to the soul.  Eyes that I thought dull as marbles kindled, wrinkled hands returned my clasp.  As I was leaving, I noticed an old German woman.  Her hand, brown-flecked, dry as a leaf, lay upon the chair.  I touched it.  It was cold.  She looked up in recognition with eyes I’d always thought of as vacant.  And in response to the deepest need in all of us, she said, “I’m lonely.  Hold my hand.”
        From a Christian faith perspective, our gospels tell us that Jesus did a great deal of his healing through touch.  The synoptic gospels also share an interesting story about power claimed through touch: healing occurring through one person claiming the healing power of another by touching them. The story of the woman with the hemorrhage in Mark 5:25-34:

A woman who had had a hemorrhage for twelve years, and had endured much at the hands of many physicians, and had spent all that she had and was not helped at all, but rather had grown worse— after hearing about Jesus, she came up in the crowd behind him and touched his cloak. For she thought, “If I just touch his garments, I will get well.” Immediately the flow of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction.  Immediately Jesus, perceiving in himself that the power proceeding from him had gone forth, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you, and you say, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to see the woman who had done this. But the woman fearing and trembling, aware of what had happened to her, came and fell down before him and told him the whole truth.  And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.”

      Perhaps many of us find this story bizarre and unintelligible. For, as the disciples said, others were crowding around. How does a touch move energy in this way?  How is it possible for Jesus (for anyone) to feel a drain of his power from a touch? How can that be healing? I used to be one of those confused by this, although, as I reflect back there have been rare people who've reached out to hug me who have felt like, in doing so, they have literally been a drain on my energy.  I think the reason we are not aware of the power in touch is because we don't spend time being conscious of it or giving it any thought at all.  Most experiences of physical touch, especially platonic hugs in our culture, are very short, which does not allow for any kind of awareness of energy exchanged. In my own experience, most of the time hugs that are longer have also felt like mutual exchanges of affection or energy.  When it comes to hugging one's children, I think there is an unconscious expectation that we are giving more in the hug, more energy, more care, than we are receiving because our children need that from us.  We don't think about it much, therefore. It is normal, natural, unconscious, but still a real exchange of power or energy, that can, at times leave us tired. But we aren't very conscious about power leaving one and going to another through touch.  
        Our animals seem more aware of this than we are.  I know many of us have had the experience of being sick and finding our pets snuggled up next to us as if the warmth of their bodies and the healing in their touch could make us well.  They intuitively seem to understand this, much more than we do.
         For myself, the only times I had even had even a small sense of this were the rare times when, in hugging someone who was at the bottom of their energy, I have left the exchange feeling drained afterwards; or those times when I've felt that my pets cuddles really were speeding along my recovery from illness.  But four years ago, my own experience changed my understanding of all of this.

       Before I tell you my story, I want to say that I've always been a very affectionate person.  Still, when I took the "love language" test in the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, I was surprised to find that, according to the test at least, my primary love language was physical affection (again, this is not primarily about sex: this is about how we understand that we are loved and it turns out I mostly understand that through hugs and other physical expressions of care). What this reflects, though, is the reality that in my almost 50 years of life I've experienced a great deal of physical affection. I've given a lot of hugs, I've received a lot of hugs.  I am very affectionate with my children and with my friends. (I am less so at church only because we've been trained in our "boundary" classes to always allow parishioners to initiate hugs lest we overstep personal space or invade in a way that is harmful.)  I value and enjoy massages.  I even took a number of massage classes at one point thinking that I might become a massage therapist.  I believe in the healing power of touch.  

      But despite all of this, despite a great deal of touch  I had never before experienced healing touch personally... until I met David.  Again, no, this is not about sex. This is not going to be a TMI situation.  But I will tell you, with a deep honesty, that I had never before felt the kind of hug, the kind of touch where my cells felt like they were being healed, nurtured, fed, rejuvenated before I had been held by David. His hugs do that to me.  Not every time.  And I can't tell you why or when they are different.  But there are times when the healing feels so deep, so real, that it moves me to tears.  I don't know if this is a gift he has, or if it is a gift he has for me. He has acknowledged that sometimes he, too, feels the "power drain from him" and it leaves him tired, though it has never stopped him from reaching out.  I wish I were not the occasional source of that drain on him, but at the same time, I am so very grateful that he has given me this healing touch that I obviously deeply needed.  I am grateful for the healing, but I am also grateful for the insight it has given me into the power of touch, the reality of healing touch, the need for that connection that can rejuvenate, rebuild, and restore us.  
       I want to acknowledge that of course there is another side to this.  The worst damage that can be done to another involves touch as well: rape, assault, abuse can destroy not only bodies, but souls.  That, too, must be named.  Touch is powerful - for either good or evil, it is powerful.  Therefore we must touch with respect, with permission, with consent, ALWAYS.  Because it is so powerful, we must, must, must be especially aware and careful of how we touch one another.  But I believe this is true of all of our deepest gifts.  They are given to us to use for good.  But the amount of good they can do is only equaled by the amount of damage they can do if used for harm.
       The power of touch is immense. I encourage us all to be more aware of the reality of that power. May we strive always to use it for good!

(I apologize for the bizarre formatting in this article.  I've tried to edit it and the program is simply not allowing me to do so...).